Race: Victoria 70.3
Date: June 4 2017
Where: Victoria, British Columbia
On my, “third time’s a charm” return to Victoria BC for the Half Ironman distance triathlon on June 4th 2017, I had high hopes that this would be the time I could come close to breaking the six-hour barrier, a decent goal for someone who battles Autoimmune Disease and also contends with a kidney disorder that attracts electrolyte imbalance issues like the ice cream truck draws small children to chase it down, block after block.
One change I made this year was to try connecting the dots between my love of being outdoors, my need to have fresh and organic foods free from allergens, gluten, and preservatives, and a reasonably priced triathlon race accommodation. After collecting the necessary pieces and calling in an early reservation, I decided this was a good time to try camping instead of staying at a hotel.
The Camping Stuff
No doubt, I like my creature comforts! Since I was driving up and taking a ferry, there were few limitations to what I could bring, so I packed it all: two-burner camp stove, two small pots, utensils and spices, cooler with beef jerky, space for meat, vegetables and fruits (purchased in Victoria), a two-person tent and air mattress, my favorite pillow, and all my clothes for training and racing.
A hanging nightlight and Kindle reader rounded out the little extras that made the weekend simple and comfortable.
I even brought a camping chair, not realizing I’d have a nice picnic table with built-in benches all to myself.
As you read on, you’ll see why having a car seat wrap ended up being that splurge item that serves well as a second blanket against the cool night air.
Finally, I think dark cacao powder is an essential camp food. I had it with my French press coffee in the mornings, and served with coconut milk and hot water in the evenings after dinner.
The Victoria HIM course is comprised of a single-loop 1.2 mile swim of Elk Lake/Beaver Lake in early summer lake temperatures that are traditionally pleasant, a single-loop 56 mile bike course made of rollers and one longer hill towards the end to a turnaround point plus one last charge up a short hill to get back to transition, and a double-looped dirt course around the lake through forested trails which are mostly shaded and only partially exposed to sunlight as you run on concrete paths for less than a quarter of the run. Truly, the trail instead of road course is one of the highlights of the race course.
The other highlight is a fantastic race venue full of enthusiastic volunteers. From packet pick up to parking, transition officials to traffic control, volunteers make this race possible as well as enjoyable.
Camping and Triathlon
When people think about “racecations”, I am pretty sure the word conjures up a king size bed with fluffy pillows, a big couch to stretch one’s body upon while resting up the day before the race, and then a quick packing up session the next day.
For me, hotels can be stressful. I usually have to book a room with a full kitchen in advance, and there is no guarantee that the kitchen has the amenities promised on the website, or if the amenities provided are properly cleaned for the use of such a food-sensitive and allergic individual such as myself.
To go camping and be completely reliant on shopping for and cooking my own safe foods is a different kind of stress because of all the preparation it takes to make sure I’ve got everything I want before I hop in the car, since I can’t count on finding those things easily at a grocery store in another country. Smaller towns don’t always have the same brands and ingredients.
In February, I started looking for campsites near the race location at Elk/Beaver Lake (yes, it has both names). It turned out there is a lovely farm with campground accommodations of up to eight sites, boasting a home-cooked breakfast constructed of farm-fresh eggs, garden produce, coffee, and other sides, and the site was quick drive to the race site, so no worries about getting caught in a long line of traffic with all the other athletes pouring in from either downtown Victoria or from the local Howard Johnson hotel (which doesn’t have kitchen suites anyways).
It was easy enough to set up my camp quickly, and then pop over to the race site and go through packet pick up. Because I own a Subaru, the Victoria 70.3 race which is sponsored by a local Subaru dealership reserves parking for Subaru owners on race day, so it was also nice to get one of these preferred parking spaces.
Additionally, there was an organic grocery store housed inside a red barn (and called as such) just a quick car drive away, and was able to find organic meats, vegetables, fruits, and other yum yums. I ran into other triathletes there who found out about the same place. As it turns out, Sannich, BC was just fine for me to find what I needed.
The one thing I could never have guessed is that the weather stayed cold for much longer into May than usual. We were anticipating brisk water temperatures for the swim event, yet what I should have been considering was how cold it might still be on the days just before the race.
I had prepared for sleeping off the ground in a tent by bringing a queen-sized air mattress and a battery-powered pump. While it was completely adequate for the task, it didn’t exactly fit the footprint of my two-person tent. Once I got in it, the sides of the tent were quite stretched to the max. On Friday night after my campsite was set up and I had already cooked my first meal on my camp stove, I found myself so cold that I had a poor night of sleep. Overnight temperatures slipped to 47F/8.3C. Brr! No wonder why the owls were hooting loudly at 2am.
At one point, it got so cold that I harumphed out loud. Stomping off to my car, I reached over the driver’s seat and yanked off my car seat cover by Orange Mud, which has multiple functions as a towel and personal changing wrap (which makes a great gift for triathletes and runners, btw). It also made a great blanket on top of my sleeping bag, which trapped enough warm air around my head and body to keep me warm enough for sleep. When I awoke the next morning, I found a good amount of the cover wrapped around my body, and my beach blanket wrapped around my head!
Still, it was so nice to pop out of my tent and see deer having breakfast on the leaves of some nearby bushes, and hear birds instead of cars. Breathing fresh air, albeit cold air, should be on every urban dweller’s agenda. Watching chickens scratching the ground, having a breakfast with freshly hatched eggs from those chickens, and smelling the clean air made it clear that camping and triathlon is the best ever combination for me! I would do it again, in a heartbeat.
Scott, the owner of farm, made me feel welcome from the first moment I arrived. The picnic table at my camp site had a small glass with votive candle, and a welcome card. He and his wife offered a eggs for purchase since I would be cooking my own foods for the weekend, and they created a nice charging area for devices as well as free hot coffee in the morning. He also shared that he reserved the campsite for us triathletes this weekend, knowing that hosting families with small children would be disruptive for all since our triathlete schedules had us running around quite early in the morning.
I Hate My Guts, I Love My Guts
My blog, My Allergy Advocate, contains my journey through loving, then hating, and then learning to love again, my guts. It is the tale of a Gut Whisperer. These days, the Gut Whisperer gets it “right” nearly 98% of the time; mistakes that are made are usually when I choose to eat out, or are anticipated “fails” because of food provocation tests designed to see what my guts can tolerate as time goes by.
My guts struggled the first evening and the day after, right into race morning, with the effects of a mild glutening incident on Memorial Day weekend when we ate at a nice restaurant. Unbeknownst to me, this would have a major impact on how my race day unfolded. We were unsure what it was in my food that made me ill, but the impact on my body tends to last up to six weeks, with mild to moderate GI symptoms from gut inflammation, diarrhea, cramping, fatigue, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, fogginess, and skin rashes on my joints.
I was hopeful that I would feel better by race day, but the night before, I was a bit nervous. I didn’t feel fresh, rested, or strong. While I didn’t feel sick enough to cancel my plans to race, I didn’t feel well enough either.
By 8pm, I was tucked into my sleeping bag with a beanie on my head, warm layers of clothing on, and my iPhone with an alarm set and charging on an Anker portable charger. One of the neighbor campers included another triathlete who had scoped this camp site out the previous year, and we agreed that if we didn’t see the other get up on time for the race, we’d wake each other up. It’s nice to know someone had my back!
I got up in the middle of the night, my guts still raging, dehydrated, and tired. This was not good.
In terms of race day weather conditions, I really could not have asked for better ones, given how cold our spring had been. The water temperature was above brisk, certainly just enough to inspire you to swim a bit faster. I also knew from the previous day’s quick SBR mini race prep, I would be cold on the bike for the first 30 minutes or so, but that I could anticipate warming up enough not to need a heavy riding jacket. And the run, which is usually my favorite event and the one that I rank consistently well on, would be comfortable.
Well, that is the way my brain tried to view it as I stared out across the water while standing in the rolling start wave for those anticipating a 40 to 50minute swim time.
The truth was, my stomach wasn’t doing its usual anxious flip flops. It was groaning. I had had a mild bout of diarrhea and cramping nearly every day of the week leading up to race day, and only by medicating it did the majority of symptoms stop. However, I don’t want to race with medication suppressing my symptoms, so I had simply did my best to let my gut recover without medication on the days just beforehand.
To my dismay, my guts were tender, Grumpy Tummy guts. With poor absorption issues, slightly under goal weight, and fatigued, it wasn’t a set up for success.
Swim Event: 47min 11 seconds
As my swim wave moved forward toward the water, I sighed. Nose clip on, goggles on, take a deep, centering breath, one-two-three sculling strokes on the top of the water, face down, and then I felt the draft of that familiar human washing machine, arms and legs everywhere, pulling me along towards the first buoy. Every time I race, I have this sensation of a strange acceptance of leaving the shore because I know that soon enough, the swim will be behind me, and the run but one event closer.
The swim event has traditionally caused me the most grief and the most fear. Three years prior, this same lake caused me so much nervousness, I wore a green cap under my designated swim cap color to signal the safety kayakers to keep an eye on me. This concept was used on the last year Victoria 70.3 had a Sprint and Oly distance race running at the same time, and to be honest, I actually appreciated it.
But this year, I didn’t have that kind of nervousness. Instead, I had the usual concerns of just trying to swim straight by sighting well, and avoid getting punched and kicked by aggressive swimmers or people with varying levels of technique, control, and awareness of their bodies in water next to others. You see a little of everything.
This was a pretty straight-forward swim for me in my weakest event, and neither my fastest nor slowest swim for the distance.
Bike Event: 3hours 39min
As usual, I am pretty happy when I haul my body out of the water and run into T1. For me, it’s cause for celebration!
I threw my bike jersey on, which was preloaded with my bike food pouches and an EPIC bar, and extra electrolyte tablets. Having had diarrhea the days before, it was really important to have extra options besides the electrolytes in my Speedfil on the bike, even though it was not a warm day.
True to what I had anticipated, I felt cold and uncomfortable on the bike for the first 40 minutes, even with a windbreaker and arm warmers on. At the first planned pitstop to use the toilets, I was warm enough to take off the windbreaker and wrap it around my waist for the rest of the ride.
Having been on this course before, I looked forward to the section of Sydney-by-the-Sea, where the bay is on your right side for a large section of the course. Other highlights: I saw an almost full-grown female deer on the road, and I rode through a section that had so much cottonwood falling, it looked like it was snowing. My allergies were going crazy, so it was a good day to practice excellent snot rocket target practice.
When it was time to start eating some food (about 60-90 minutes into the bike ride), I discovered that I could not eat. When I tried to swallow, my guts rejected that food and I felt nauseous and slightly dizzy. I tried drinking a little more fluid and waiting, yet as the minutes went by and I kept cycling, I was getting tired but still unable to eat.
I dawned on me that I might be in trouble.
There would be another potty stop along the course that I could opt to take a little longer and attempt to eat a little food while I was not in motion. I figured it might give my guts a chance to absorb the nutrients and prepare for the only long climb of the day: a right hand turn up a stretch of road to a turnaround point at the top, followed by the most rip-roaring, nail biting descent. This is what I live for as a cyclist, since I’m not the strongest. I need hills to help me gain some time back, and I generally keep my hands off the brakes unless they are absolutely necessary.
At the planned stop, I put in as much food as I could keep down. Measuring what remained after the entire race was over, I guestimate that my entire total intake for this race was no more than 150 calories plus water. I would never tell anyone to do what I did. I went into survival mode, putting together everything I know about myself and what is and isn’t safe. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that 150 calories is not enough fuel to move your body around for over six hours.
The name of the game, if I wanted to walk over the finish line and not crawl or end up in the med tent, would be to slow down. As I trotted into T2 at the end of the bike event, I thought about taking a DNF. If I had started vomiting, I probably would have. But I checked in with myself, and as I racked my bike and removed my bike helmet, I looked out at the run exit and said, “Well, the run IS my favorite event.”
Run Event: 2hours 33 minutes
As I ran out of T2 and onto the run course, I could feel the air temperature: it could not have been more perfect. My guts, however, were in a state of distress.
Pressing my Garmin’s button to start recording run time and keep track of pace, my guts began screaming, “Slow down! You’re hurting us!” When I didn’t slow down, I felt wave after wave of nausea, and this began in the first mile of the run, which is flat and easy. I slowed to a walk, something I have never had to do in a half marathon.
It dawned on me that this might very well be my second longest half marathon, the first longest reserved for the Xterra World Running Championship course in 2015. At least in that one, I already knew it was going to take me over three hours to finish. At Victoria, my running speeds previous to the race should have clocked me in closer to a two-hour half marathon finish time. With each wave of nausea, that goal faded away to a very simple thought: keep moving, and try not to puke or faint.
I had put some real-sugar Coke in my hydration water flask, but I did not pack enough of it. I usually only need the amount I packed, but since I couldn’t take in food properly on the bike, I started the run in a horrible calorie deficit, as well as glycogen depletion.
My Coach’s response to my race report –and in particular, the details surrounding my inability to eat on the bike — was to congratulate me for finding, “… a new gear.” Essentially, when you are in glycogen depletion, your body will do what it needs to get energy from somewhere in order to keep you moving. For a couple of years now, I’ve been trained as a, “fat burner”, and I knew the two speed options I had to keep my body burning fat over carbohydrates, since few carbohydrates were coming in.
Rationing the real-sugar Coke throughout the first loop of the course, I made it in an even but slower speed, and conserved my energy the best I could. But by the time I hit the second loop, I noticed that I was beginning to stumble every so often. I took a timed walk break every so often, and then ran for as long as I could. Walk. Run run run run run run run run. Walk. Run run run run stumble run run run trip run run. Walk. I kept telling myself that I could end my suffering sooner if I finished sooner, and that gave me the mental strength to push myself to keep moving, even as the nausea and dizziness worsened.
I always carry an emergency Honey Stinger gel, and this is used only if all other options have failed or run out. About 50% of the time, I’m OK after taking in a third of the gel, but if I eat a full gel in under an hour’s time, I’m basically accepting that my guts will be deeply unhappy about it later. So, I took in a third of the gel with lots of water, and then dumped the rest in the trash, so that even if my desperate mind wanted to mainline that sugar, it would not be available. One-third was the only risk I would take.
And apparently, that was enough. The last two miles of the course were the most brutal, the most blurry, and the most sad. I felt angry with myself for coming all this way, only to be sick, and to have basically shat upon my once hopeful race goal of getting my finish time under six hours. Now, I was just fighting to finish, hoping against the odds of ending up in the med tent at the end or going through the shame of barfing into a garbage can or on a bush.
Those miles can feel like a triathlete’s, “Walk of Shame.” Here you are, struggling to finish, dirty, tired, and nauseated, and there are athletes who finished hours before you, walking their bikes out to their cars, kindly telling you, “You got this!” I checked my kit to make sure I didn’t have any spit or saliva lines on my face from the few times I had dry heaved after sipping water at one of the tables. If you haven’t figured it out, I can’t accept food — only water — at the food tables, due to my food allergies. What I have on me is the only thing I can take in, and today, I couldn’t eat even my own options. I stopped looking at my watch, because time no longer mattered.
But there was no time for pity. There was under a mile left to go, and as I put one foot in front of the other, I heard my own voice inside my head tell myself that my own chosen suffering was almost over, and this was time to just run… because I can run, and not everyone can. Not everyone gets to. Not everyone has had enough good health to get their feet to the start of this race. Who cares about the finish time goal? Just finish. It’s ok. Everything is going to be fine. You will forget how much you are hurting. Just keep going.
And then I heard people’s voices, and I saw the Finisher’s Chute.
As I lowered my head to receive my Finisher’s Medal and return my timing chip, a medical helper walked over to me and asked if he could help me. I was unsteady on my feet, and I probably looked a bit pale from the nausea. I waved him off and said, “No, thank you, I’ll be fine!” The truth was, I was pretty nauseated and quickly found a place to sit down and drink some water before heading back to the finish line to wait for a couple of friends to finish the race.
When I checked in with a friend and realized I might be waiting another 45 minutes or longer, I told him to make sure I woke up in time. Trotting off to a shady spot on the grass, I put my arms over my head and stared at the leaves on trees overhead. My friend told me later that he looked over at me to see if I was OK, and apparently I had fallen asleep in less than two minutes, snoring away! Ha ha!
Victoria 70.3 is a great race, and I especially like it for the trail run. Combining my race with camping made this year’s experience both unique and charming, and sticking around for an additional day to relax and take a nap in the sun helped me experience this race as a true “racecation”.
In terms of lessons I took away from this race, one of the bigger ones happened in the days just afterwards. I began to wallow in self-pity because I have Celiac Disease. Up until this point, I had accepted that this disease would be a major limiter of what potential I could expect to see for myself at this point in my recovery. This race made me confront those limitations again, and I grew resentful. Life is unfair, I protested.
Yes, it can be.
Somewhere in my mind, I wanted to measure all my races with an upward progression, as if with each race and especially on repeats of the same course, progress had to be measured by splits and finish times, and against my Age Group. I had forgotten about the other measurements of my own personal progress, such as overcoming specific obstacles, problem solving, and experiencing more comfort with the race distance overall.
I reflected on the stories of men and women I have met virtually who have a variety of Autoimmune Diseases, and who wish to be active. Many of them struggle with fatigue, nutritional issues, pain, and depression. Only some of us have been able to find time, energy, and good-enough health to participate in long-endurance sports. And here I was, whining that my finish time wasn’t what I wanted it to be.
While this year’s race experience was painful compared with last year’s race of the same course, I can’t say that I would have made a decision to drop the race, even if I had known the outcome. By being in so much discomfort, and yet running slowly, I had the time to reflect on how much I enjoy running — yes, even when it’s not exactly a party.
Not every race is going to feel good.
Not every race is going to show upward improvement in finish times.
Sometimes, just getting to the start line is the accomplishment, and the finish line is a bonus.